In this latest novel from Colson Whitehead, the (ironically) unnamed protagonist is a “nomenclature consultant” who takes delight in helping corporate American find the best names for particular products. He names a social anxiety drug “Loquacia,” and he names a multicultural band-aid (it is sold in numerous skin tones) “Apex.”
The novel loosely centers around a legal dispute (of sorts), with a city council deadlocked on the rightful name of a growing Midwestern town. Founded by Black settlers leaving slavery behind and striking out for a better life on the plains, the town was originally named “Freedom.” Only a few years later, a wealthy white industrialist brought his factory along with a new name for the town, “Winthrop.” Today the Winthrops are a family in decline, and a new economy entrepreneur wants to rename the town “New Prospera.”
With the city council split three ways, our narrator must arbitrate the dispute. I will not give any spoilers, but the end somehow leaves a number of questions unanswered. And, although filled with clever language, puns, and plays on words – the major strength of this book – the major plot lines fail to grab the reader’s attention, and the characters seem underdeveloped.
It could have been a great book about an unusual legal dispute, or about race in America, but somehow fell short on both accounts. (Points for clever puns though).